Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 2 (CD Review)

Randy Newman

The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 2

Nonesuch CD

Randy Newman has gained acclaim for his Hollywood film scores, which deploy full orchestrations alongside his singing and piano-playing. His studio albums have featured similar instrumental line-ups, something that’s given his pop a classy sheen that’s served as something of an ironic foil for the ofttimes biting satire of his lyrics. It’s refreshing to hear the songs from Newman’s pop canon in a stripped down setting: you’ll hardly miss the strings!

In this, the second Nonesuch release on which Newman performs his best known songs solo, with only a grand piano for company, one learns or is reminded of, several things about the artist at this stage of his career. First, he’s still a mighty fine piano player, shuffling through mid tempo rags and drawing forth imaginative voicings in a style that may at times sound deceptively simple, but is anything but simplistic. A supple sense of timing is omnipresent, and Newman’s use of articulation and a wide dynamic range help to remind one of the instruments featured in the original recordings of these songs. Newman’s voice has always been a distinctive one; expressive rather than “pretty.” And if it’s lost a fair amount of the limited lilt it had when he was younger, and if a few high notes strain more than they used to, it’s still remarkable to hear the characters his singing calls forth, and the way that he can inhabit a song.

This CD’s been in the stereo quite a bit this summer. And one of the marks of its durability is the amount of times tracks have been repeated to get a second listen to a particularly fetching rendition. Those who suggest that Newman’s songbook has too many similar-sounding entries need to listen more carefully; there’s a lot going on above those shuffles; both musical and lyrical nuances. Hearing him perform the songs in this intimate setting underscores their vitality.

7/7: The Pearl and the Beard plus Franz Nicolay tonight in Williamsburg

Brooklyn trio The Pearl and the Beard describe themselves as “three voices, one cello, one guitar, one glockenspiel, one melodica, several drums, one accordion, ninety-six teeth, and one soul.” All of these – well, maybe not the teeth – will be brought to bear in their show tonight at Music Hall in Williamsburg.

The Pearl and the Beard: Sweetness (MP3 download)

Opening for PatB is our favorite banjo wielding, songwriting, ex-Hold Steady member, Franz Nicolay.

Music Hall of Williamsburg (details here)

Doors open at 8; show starts at 9

Over 16 event

Cyberbullying and Britten

When I planned to teach a course at Westminster Choir College about Benjamin Britten’s vocal music in the Fall, I knew that gender/sexuality studies would play a role in our evaluation of his works. But I certainly wasn’t planning to discuss something as topical and unsettling as the recent tragedy at Rutgers. Our campus is a half hour away from RU (my alma mater), and a number of students were understandably shaken by hearing about Tyler Clementi’s suicide.

The technological tools for communication may have gotten more sophisticated; but the people using them, if they act selfishly, can be in danger of disconnecting from their better impulses. Sadly, in this instance, the consequences were heartbreaking.

With Britten’s Michelangelo Sonnets and his opera Peter Grimes staring up at us, we began to discuss their texts. We then pondered the connection between the poems and some biographical background: Britten and Pears’ early collaboration, their trip to America, and eventual partnership. In my initial lesson notes, I’d pointed out that theirs was a relationship that was frowned upon in many corners, and would still be illegal for more than two decades after they returned to Great Britain. I asked: what resonances to Britten’s life can be found in the poetry of Michelangelo?

My plan was to then turn to a discussion of how Britten depicts these texts and alludes to personal biography in the musical details of these songs.

But in light of cyberbullying and prejudice, the continued homophobia in American society seemed an unavoidable topic: one I didn’t want to foist on the class but certainly wasn’t going to avoid if they decided to broach it. Delicately, one of the students brought up Tyler Clementi’s suicide. I was touched by how sensitively and maturely the other students in the class responded. They thoughtfully discussed the issues surrounding this terrible event, reflecting on how it affects their future work as teachers and musicians. They also reflected on how it should serve as a wake up call for their current lives, challenging them to speak out against teen suicide and try to be compassionate friends to their peers.

They pointed out that whether it is homophobia, racism, social, financial, or academic pressures that are troubling them, many young people are under duress and in need of compassion: both community support and sometimes professional help. As we saw this week, it’s far too easy for someone to be treated with prejudice and cruelty, even today. As some of the students pointed out, among young people we sadly must say, “Especially today.”

I’ll remember many of the comments made by the students on Friday. Although, to respect their privacy, I won’t share their more personal observations, there was one comment that brought us back to the music in eloquent fashion. It was the suggestion that Britten, indeed through the works we were studying that very day in class, could teach us a great deal about prejudice.

“What Britten sought, throughout his life, to portray in his music, was that if you treat someone like an outsider, we all suffer as a society: none of us can grow.”

Although we didn’t have time to find all of the musical intricacies in the songs, I’m very grateful for that lesson.